The gap between Richard Riordan and Bill Simon in the California Republican gubernatorial primary is closing.
Riordan's campaign is sputtering after weeks of gaffes and gratuitous attacks on Republican values. Gray Davis's anti-Riordan ads aren't helping either. They portray Riordan as, among other things, a flip-flopping pansy on the death penalty. Yes, that's correct: the Golden State's leftist governor is attacking the apparent GOP standard-bearer from the right.
Meanwhile, Bill Simon's campaign, after an astonishingly long period of dormancy, is showing some signs of strength. He is drawing attention to Riordan's appalling record as a Republican and pledging never to raise taxes (Riordan once said taxes in the state were too low).
Unfortunately, Simon may lose some critical votes to the other member of the race, California Secretary of State Bill Jones, who spent months attacking Riordan while Simon curiously stayed on the sidelines.
Jones qualifies as the Bob Dole of the California Republican Party. His campaign slogan might as well be: "Vote for me, I am a loyal party hack."
To unite the conservative base around him, Simon would have done well early on to portray both Riordan and Jones as out-of-touch Republicans. Jones, after all, helped Pete Wilson pass one of the largest state tax increases in American history.
But who knows, perhaps Simon still has time to tell California conservatives not to waste their votes on this center-right Wilsonite, whose fundraising potential against Davis is nil.
Riordan is clearly more worried about Simon. Riordan, before considering a gubernatorial campaign himself, urged Simon, a neighbor in tony West Los Angeles, to run for governor. But now with Simon's numbers improving, Riordan is smearing him. In a cheap shot even for a politician, Riordan is blaming Simon for the failure of a Savings and Loan that Simon's late father owned. Riordan's attack ad makes sinister mention of the "Simon-led" bank -- never mind that the Simon here in question is dead.
"I felt people should know what kind of person he is," says Riordan pathetically of his challenger.
What kind of person is Riordan? Simon has enough advertising dough to solidify in primary voters' minds the image of Riordan as the Jim Jeffords of California -- an erratic independent who will tolerate everything except principled Republicanism.
Riordan makes a great deal of noise about the importance of "smart" and "inclusive" GOP politics. But he seems incapable of practicing it in a primary. Telling primary voters that their party is intrinsically misogynist and racist -- which is the upshot of his pro-abortion, pro-affirmative action remarks -- is not exactly a prudent primary strategy.
Riordan has an almost obsessive need to provoke and humiliate traditional Republicans. Hence his pointless pot shot at former GOP governor George Deukmejian -- "He only remembers his grudges."
Riordan's response to Gray Davis's preemptive strikes has been equally dumb. A hyper Davis has rolled out ads casting Riordan, inexplicably enough, as a pro-lifer (due to Riordan's once letting the truth about abortion as "murder" slip out many years ago).
Had Riordan played his cards right, he might have let these ads confuse Republican primary voters into thinking he is a socially conservative Catholic. Instead, he is defensively hollering from the rooftops his devotion to the abortion cause. Only "pro-choicers," Riordan monomaniacally asserts, can win in California. Has it ever occurred to Riordan that the tens of thousands of Latino voters in the state don't find his wine-and-cheese Brentwood pro-abortion politics terribly appealing?
It's worth noting, by the way, the sorry spectacle of two Catholics -- Davis and Riordan -- tussling over who's more pro-abortion. Davis takes communion at Bad Shepherd parish in Beverly Hills, while the thrice-married Riordan boasts of membership at St. Monica's in Santa Monica and is actually trying to use that status to silence the pro-life Simon. ("You and I belong to the same church…you have to be ashamed at the folklore that came out of your mouth," he said to him in a debate when Simon noted truthfully Riordan's record.)
Naturally, the politically correct bishops of California have not rebuked these two sons of the Church. Apparently they are too busy resolving sex-abuse suits to issue a reprimand. (Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, a Caesar Chavez leftist who offered an opening prayer at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, used to fly himself around ludicrously in a helicopter Riordan financed for him.)
Riordan is, of course, still favored to win on March 5. Should he do so, the next question for California voters will be: Who's the conservative in the race?